By Katerina Parsons
Research and Communications Fellow, Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa
After three weeks, six re-votes, and many long nights of inter-party deal-making, Honduras has finally confirmed its 15 new Supreme Court justices, members of the highest judicial power who will influence Honduran law and policy for the next seven years.
The selection process has been troubled with questions about transparency and accountability, with various reports calling out the nominating committee for delaying the release of nominees’ CVs and polygraph test results, and the US embassy publicly naming candidates it suspected of connections with corruption and organized crime.
These questions, along with a lack of nominees representing new opposition parties Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE) and Anti-Corruption Party (PAC), contributed to a stalled Supreme Court election process, the first in Honduran history to go to re-votes and secret ballots. The two opposition parties refused to vote for any approved candidates, leaving the Congress unable to obtain the 2/3rds majority required to appoint the court.
As the Congress voted six times on the same candidates, the opposition parties accused the traditional parties of trying to pass a flawed and non-representational court, while the traditional parties blamed them for obstructing a Constitutional process in exchange for bargaining power. Despite the delay and the protests, Congress elected the new Supreme Court on February 11th.
The stakes for a new Supreme Court are high in Honduras, where political corruption continues to threaten democratic progress. International anti-corruption initiatives such as the newly-signed Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) depend on a robust judicial system, which historically has not been present in Honduras.
In the absence of reliable and timely data from the Supreme Court nomination committee, civil society stepped in to evaluate the Supreme Court nominees. Organizations such as the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF), the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ, by its Spanish initials), and the American Bar Association (ABA) urged the nomination committee throughout the selection process to closely investigate the candidates and publicize their evaluation criteria.
As reported in an previous post, to enhance this pressure, the investigative team of Revistazo.com, an independent online magazine and a project of ASJ, created an interactive online tool ranking candidates on their performances at public audiences. Based on DPLF’s best practices for the selection of members of the highest courts, Revistazo created a metric to evaluate the nominees’ legal knowledge, vision for the justice system, and public presence and trustworthiness. These rankings were published in an online database, titled “Ranking #JudiLeaks” where nominees’ results could be viewed and shared.
Revistazo found that the nominees eventually presented to the Congress contained a mix of the best- and the worst-ranked candidates. As the new court slowly took form, with eight Justices confirmed on January 28th, three on Feb 9th, and the final four on February 11th, it was clear that the final court would reflect this as well.
Honduras’ new Supreme Court is made up of ten men and five women, led by new Supreme Court President Rolando Argueta, who served previously as the Director of Prosecutors in the Attorney General’s office.
Revistazo’s analysis shows that these 15 are not the most qualified of the proposed candidates. According to Revistazo’s metric, eight members of the court earned scores of below 75%, with only two of Revistazo’s “Best 10” making it onto the court, and three of their “Worst 10” earning a spot (a few notes: “nervous and confused responses,” “indecisive,” “poor judicial arguments,” “without jurisdictional experience”). By the official nominating committee’s rankings, 13 magistrates scored between 66 and 75% on evaluations, and none scored above 85%.
Perhaps more troubling, the justices have not avoided being linked to corruption. According to results published months after the testing, three justices failed the required polygraph test, where they were asked about connections to crime and drug trafficking. One of the U.S. Embassy’s flagged nominees, Rafael Bustillo Romero, also made it onto the court.
While these findings are discouraging, the fact that this information is public is a step forward in transparency. Pressure from civil society placed unprecedented attention on the nomination process, and likely formed a more merit-based court than an unsupervised process would have produced.
The Supreme Court election illustrated many things about the complexity of Honduran politics, the difficulty of agreement across party lines, and the near-impossibility of finding spotless officials in a stained political environment. It also illustrated the power of civil society to monitor and affect the outcomes of political processes. Particularly as nomination processes become more strained and partisan, civil society organizations play a valuable role in performing politically neutral evaluations and developing recommendations for reforms.
The election process for this Supreme Court was important – but what is more important is monitoring over the next seven years, ensuring that the court serves justice to the Honduran people. Civil society’s participation in and commitment to this monitoring will be essential.
DPLF and ASJ are collaborating on a report detailing the process of the Supreme Court election with recommendations for improvements. The results will be published in March.
How were the new Honduran Justices evaluated:
Nominating Committee Score
Flagged by US Embassy
Passed Poligraph Tests?
|Lidia Álvarez Sagastume||47% (one of ASJ’s “worst”)||67%||National||NO|
|Rina Alvarado Moreno||50% (one of ASJ’s “worst”)||67%||Liberal||YES|
|Alma Consuelo Guzmán||53% (one of ASJ’s “worst”)||76%||Liberal||YES|
|Miguel Alberto Pineda||67%||68%||National||NO|
|Rafael Bustillo Romero||67%||70%||X||National||uncertain|
|José Olivio Rodríguez Vásquez||70%||66%||National||NO|
|Wilfredo Méndez Romero||70%||72%||Liberal||uncertain|
|María Fernanda Castro Mendoza||70%||85%||Liberal||uncertain|
|Edwin Francisco Ortez||77%||68%||Nacional||YES|
|Edgardo Cáceres Castellanos||77%||70%||Liberal||YES|
|Jorge Abilio Serrano||83%||68%||Liberal||uncertain|
|Jorge Alberto Zelaya Zaldaña||87%||69%||National||uncertain|
|Rolando Edgardo Argueta Pérez||87%||74%||National||YES|
|Reina Auxiliadora Hércules Rosa||90%
(one of ASJ’s “best”)
|Reynaldo Antonio Hernández||100%
(one of ASJ’s “best”